But the best thing about no longer having a uniform to wear is now you have complete and utter fashion freedom. No more being chastised by Sister Barbara because your socks were below regulation length. No more pushing dress code boundaries with denim jackets and colorful shoes. This freedom goes to your head a little, and after an entire lifetime of dressing like everyone else at school, you relish the opportunity to dress AS UNIQUELY AS POSSIBLE and AT MAXIMUM VOLUME. Corsets! Black lace gloves! Fishnet tights! Black, ratty chucks with obscene words drawn all over them in blue and black biro pen! Fedoras! Cast off the shackles of your preppy upbringing with punk gusto! When you come home during summer vacations, your mother will roll her eyes and ask you to “please stop dressing like a cartoon character”, which only makes you devilish with glee.
“You’re a pretty girl,” she would say, “why don’t you ever dress like it?”
And there it is. Femininity slaps you in the face like an accusation, reminding you that “feminine” is so often synonymous with “pretty”, a word goes on group dates with other concepts like “graceful” and “elegant” and “girly”. Your 90s grunge grrrl power education taught you to reject the notion of “girly” and supplant it with something more hardcore, like “kickass” and “awesome”. Somewhere along the line, you’ve come to believe that to be feminine was to be anti-feminist, because to be feminine was somehow solipsistic and limiting, instead of universal and empowering.
How stupid you are.
It’s Friday night and you sit in your parents’ bedroom. Dad hasn’t come home from work yet, but he and Mum are going out for a nice dinner. Your legs dangle off the edge of their bed swinging back and forth, clad in white Mary-Janes with rhinestones decorating the toes. You’re dressed in what you call your Alice dress, a pouffy, lacy, floral affair that poofs out around you when you jump from the bed to the floor, so-named because the way it poofs reminds you of that scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice floats gently down the rabbit hole in her pouffy blue dress.
“Wanna put on some makeup?” Mum asks and you nod eagerly, approaching the tubs and containers of mysterious powders and creams with a sense of awe. You watch her paint her face with a dab hand, and you can’t quite pinpoint it, but there’s something magical about her transformation. Our mother has always been beautiful, but with her makeup, subtle and elegant, she is somehow herself, but more. There’s something strange and tingly about the entire ritual, and you won’t understand until you are older that it is the indefinable allure of glamour.
Later, Dad will pick Mum up at the door with a bouquet of flowers, leaving you to be babysat by our grandmother and Labyrinth, a movie which surely defined our love of glam rock, glitter, and David Bowie. You love the ballroom scene best, because Sarah walks in looking like a princess with her enormous sleeves and even bigger hair. She’s so pretty, you think. I want to look like that.
Do you remember, JJ, moments like these when you reveled in unabashed femininity? There was no judgment then, only joy in feeling pretty. It’s hard for you to take such unalloyed pleasure in being pretty now, not when “pretty” comes with some serious baggage. Because somewhere, somehow, “pretty” started to hang out with “insipid” and “shallow” and “unintelligent”. “Pretty” acquired some unpleasant hanger-ons.
Because you’ve begun to attract attention now, and it isn’t just because your fashion sense is dialed up to 11. And attached to all that attention is guilt. Are you looking pretty to feel pretty or are you looking pretty to be noticed? Wherein lies the line of division?
You know what? Learn to use the other F word, and learn not to give a flying fuck. Who gives a shit about what you look like? If you want to look pretty, then go ahead and look pretty. When you finally learn to apply makeup correctly, when you realize that makeup is really like art, and that your entire body and clothing style is a canvas for expression, you will stop caring. Today you may look “pretty”; tomorrow you may decide to dress up as Jareth the Goblin King.
Deep down, what you have to realize, JJ, is that you’re a girly-girl. It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s only another hat in our box, along with Comic Nerd, Science-Fiction Dork, and Fantasy Geek. And the whole point of feminism is that you can wear all these hats, including Girly Girl, whenever you want.
Yours on the other side of 21,
P.S. STOP BUYING BLACK CLOTHES. In a few years, you’ll get tired of your plucky, cheerful Goth look and long for colors. Trust me on this one.